Don’t let a spitter conquer you

If you work long enough in fire and EMS, the day will come when someone spits at you. You must prepare your defensible response in advance


Lt. Dan originally wrote this article for Police1. Though paramedics, EMTs and firefighters are just as likely as police officers to be spat on, they have fewer options on how they can respond. Use Lt. Dan’s advice to prepare yourself for the inevitable spitting incident.  

I was shot at and missed, spit and hit. This is how I sometimes kiddingly describe my career in law enforcement.

Since retirement, I have written much to help police officers prepare for suspects who pose armed and unarmed physical threats. However, this is the first time I have written to help police officers, as well as firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, prepare for those suspects who spit for spite.

If you work long enough in public safety, the day will come when someone spits at you. You must prepare your defensible response in advance.

Prepare mentally and emotionally for how you'll react when a patient or suspect spits on you.
Prepare mentally and emotionally for how you'll react when a patient or suspect spits on you. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t be conquered

I often say, “The man who angers you, conquers you.”

Spitting is a tactic used by criminals to get public safety personnel to overreact. If suspects succeed in their mission, you may find yourself suspended, fired and/or sued and sometimes even criminally charged, while the criminal laughs all the way to the bank. That is the definition of “conquered.”

To prevent an over-reaction, you must:

  • Prepare mentally and emotionally not to over-react.
  • Train for a defensible physical response.

Prepare for a defensible emotional reaction

You naturally feel disgusted when someone spits on you. To mentally calibrate your emotions before this happens, you must tell yourself they are not spitting at you, they are spitting at the uniform. The uniform can take it.

However, with that said, you do not have to stand by and take it. It is alright to react, but not to over-react! Here are some options for preparing for a defensible physical reaction to a spit attack.

1. Physically avoid or block the spit

In a world where there is COVID-19, bloodborne pathogens, tuberculosis and many other communicable diseases, it behooves you to avoid the first sudden assault of the spitter, as well as all subsequent assaults.

At times a spitter gives an advanced warning with what I like to call the guttural gathering, which is the pre-hock noise made as they conjure up the disgusting expectorant. With this warning, you can use the power pivot or side-step to avoid the first onslaught. Then move to control, and or get something between you and the spitter like:

  • A pillow
  • A clipboard
  • A towel
  • Their own coat
  • First-in bag
  • Laptop or tablet computer
  • Anything within reach that can serve as an impromptu spit shield.

If it is tactically advantageous, move out of range.

2. Let the cops take control of the subject

After the spit, request law enforcement response to the scene. If law enforcement is already present, step aside so they can take control of the spitter. I teach officers a spin technique which is accomplished by pulling one of the spitter’s shoulders toward you counter-clockwise as you hit the other shoulder away from you counter-clockwise. In this way the police officer can quickly turn the unsuspecting suspect 180 degrees, facing away from you and other public safety personnel.

Continue to stand aside to allow police officers the time and space to get the subject controlled. If you are interested, you can read my personal preference to use either an arm bar or a rear compliance hold on Police1.

3. Have and use the proper tools

Once the suspect is controlled, determine if there is a need to for a medical evaluation. As fire and EMS personnel, you can ask law enforcement to contain the suspect’s spitting with the proper equipment such as a spit hood, mask or shield.

Don’t assume the police officers will monitor the patient’s airway and breathing once a hood, mask or shield is placed on the subject. Once you begin a patient assessment you have an obligation to continually monitor the suspect’s level of consciousness, airway patency and adequacy of ventilation. Treat what you find with the tools and training within your scope of practice.

4. Warn the hospital staff

If you determine the suspect needs medical evaluation at the hospital make sure you warn the hospital staff about the spitting incident.

5. Demand that the spitter is arrested and charged

If a suspect spits on a cop you can be certain the suspect will be charged accordingly to ensure prosecution. If fire or EMS personnel are the spitter’s targets those personnel, with the support of their immediate supervisors and department chief, need to insist that police charge and incarcerate the spitter. In every jurisdiction, assault of fire and EMS personnel should be treated just as seriously as the assault of a police officer.

A charging protocol for intentional, directed spitting should already exist within the police department and prosecutor’s office.

6. Cleaning

While using the proper protective equipment and cleaning agents, either you or someone whose job it is, needs to clean the ambulance before others are transported in it, if that is where the spitting offense took place.

Clean yourself thoroughly. Whenever this happened to me, I would call out of service with the clearance of my commander, place my uniform in a plastic bag for cleaning, shower and re-dress in my spare uniform I always had available in my locker.

7. Follow-up with the district attorney

When deliberately contaminated in this manner, make sure your department is cooperating with law enforcement with follow-up with the DA to make certain the proper forms are filled out identifying you as a victim-witness, requesting a court-ordered follow-up to determine if the suspect carried any dangerous pathogens. This type of personal follow-up sometimes also breathes energy into the prosecutorial efforts of the prosecutor as well. This is done not just for your protection, but the protection of your loved ones as well.

If the spitter had tuberculosis, you want to know since you may need a TB booster vaccination.

Conclusion

Spitting in the face of a police officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic is disgusting. When it happens to you, you will have many people on your side. This is not the time to over-react but the time to possess the skill to react effectively and defensibly. Prepare!

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